George Santayana, a Spanish-American philosopher of the late 19th and 20th century, said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In this episode, we find that those who do remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Surprisingly, the episode does not attempt to refute Santayana’s admonishment, but rather to enrich it.
Three United States soldiers, members of the National Guard, are engaged in military exercises in big Horn County, Montana, near the location of what is known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” the battle of the 7th U.S. Cavalry lead by General George Custer against the Sioux American Indians on June 26, 1876, on the same day in 1964. Two of the three have read about the battle, and appreciate the history of the land on which they stand. As they survey the lay of the land, the they begin to reconstruct the route taken by the 7th Cavalry. Rod Serling describes their preoccupation with the past as a collision or “meshing” of the present and the past. He does describe what happens as an instance of time travel. There is no time machine, no pill, no special technology to take them back to the time of Custer’s Last Stand. They are already in the place, and it is appropriate to view what happens as a preoccupation. Three soldiers who are on a routine mission are deflected from that mission and embark on another.
That two of the three soldiers know about the significance of the site on which they find themselves, and one has no appreciation of it, is crucial. Santayana argued that how we value the objects and actions we experience depends on our natural, physical embedding in the world, and on the history of our interactions with the natural world, including other humans and other animals. Two soldiers see this stretch of Montana through its history, and their actions are guided by their appreciation of that history.
Nowhere is it acknowledged that while what happened in 1976 was the defeat of the U.S. Cavalry by the Sioux Indians, those reflecting on that defeat are the descendants of those defeated soldiers, soldiers serving under the government that brutally and ultimately prevailed over all the Native Americans, including the Sioux. The National Guardsmen of 1964 are the conquerors, yet they are caught up in the most significant set-back of their domination against native peoples.
They are the hunted. They don’t embody the perspective of the conqueror. Perhaps what happens to them that this land was once fiercely defended from foreign aggression, something hardly appreciated by most soldiers in 1964, and by most citizens of the United States at the time and since. The possible world in which the United States did not conquer the native American peoples is a particularly remote one, but this episode suggests that taking it up and taking it seriously may have profound implications.
How far back should we go in considering our collective responsibility for the past actions of the nation to which we belong? It is worth noting that “The 7th is Made up of Phantoms” concerns an historical event that occurred a mere 80 or so years prior. Does the passage of time diminish moral responsibility for wrongs committed at an earlier time? What do we owe the descendants of the Sioux and other sovereign native American nations?
Santayana, George, 2005, The Life of Reason.